When you give up your home, haul your suitcase through the self-opening airport doors, repack on the check-in counter because you’ve brought too many home comforts, and pray your way through the security scanners, you’re making a choice that your life is going to change.
You’re not going to be free to meet at the local pub for a few drinks on a Friday night. You’re not going to be able to maintain that gym membership or running routine. You’re going to miss the support that holds you accountable to others, the teasing and encouragement before a community run or a job interview or the soft smile that comes with someone recognizing that your day requires slipping a frozen apple strudel into the oven while you collapse on the sofa and drink tea. You’re not there. You can’t pop round for the evening and share a bottle of wine while cursing evil heartbreakers or evil bosses. You appear to all as busy because you are absent. Gone.
Except, in some ways, you’re more available than before. In England my phone lives in my handbag, or on the bedside table. It can be forgotten when I go out for a walk or as I bake a cake, but abroad everything is different. My phone is the anchor that remains, the only link I have to the people who would scrape me off the road and tuck me into bed. When a close friend sends me a message, or my grandma emails me, it’s appreciated all the more because I know how easy it is to forget those who are out of sight.
There are few comforts to fall back to, croissants and fancy cakes, sunshine (until it burns you), the calm of reading a book, alcohol if you’re that way inclined.
Eventually it becomes not if, but how often are you willing to smile and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Throwing out your wacky ideas to see if they’re caught by the wind starts to seem less crazy. You aren’t as bad a companion as you thought you’d be. When you’re all you’ve got, you have to appreciate your own sense of humour and generate your own kindness. Listening to your own exhaustion matters more. If you crash, you crash. You have nobody to prop up your depleted energy levels. And when you find yourself spiralling into low-self-esteem, frantically worrying and planning for the worse, you can’t offload to someone else. Fear is your buddy now.
It can be lonely when you know nobody. Your Friday night isn’t a comfortable pint with people who don’t mind you whinging about the same topic as the previous weeks and months. It’s spent alone and you’d better be happy with that because you made the choice to leave.
Saying hello and introducing yourself is hard. You have to recognize that someone else, who has their own plans, friends and dreams might be grateful to have coffee with you, despite them knowing nothing about you. It takes a dose of self-belief.
Then, gradually, friends start appearing, or at least people who are also so alone that like friends they don’t mind your oddities. You meet people who, like you, worry about balancing connection and comfort with their innate curiosity. Often they might seem confused as to who they are and what they will do with their lives. They’re explorers who need someone to thrash it all out with.
You discuss food, visas and the strength of the coffee. You find out that there are countries that don’t have a minimum wage and that the idea that a woman would give up her own surname is considered, by some, crazy and unfair.
These strangers, the people willing to tell you about their broken hearts and failed dreams don’t mind when you say you don’t want to go out with them and drink on a Saturday night, you aren’t theirs, and they don’t have any expectations of you. No explanations are owed. There’s no guilt that you upset them, or shame that you’re a poor friend who’s let them down.
It gives you room to experiment. There are fewer requirements to belong to a group because the membership is in constant flux. It’s necessary to have people to meet up with to discuss the day’s traumas, but everyone knows both the person talking and the listener are there on a temporary assignment. There’s little need to bend to the group’s norms, in fact it’s damaging as what people are often looking for is a challenge to their own individuality. Differences are celebrated and assumptions put to the test. Comparisons are made, but they’re not about you as the individual, they’re about your whole culture, they’re about everything that has made you who you are.
In this land of far, far away, I often I hear stories that play along the lines of ‘I’ve screwed up and failed and my life is a mess and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next month, let alone in 5 years’ time’. They make me smile for anyone who talks openly about their uncertainties and their battles with the ‘shoulds’ of their perfect scenario gets respect from me. Admitting life is crazy scary is hard, and it’s tough saying I wanted to do this, but I failed the entrance exam, or I was with this guy, but he broke my heart and now I don’t know how to trust again, or I wish I could give up smoking, or I dropped out of college, and now I don’t know what to do, or I’ve worked for ten years in finance and I couldn’t bear another moment trapped behind that desk. It’s a powerful message.
Sometimes all you can do is keep moving forward.